In The Crease with Kappy: Pushback on Analytics League Wide, New York Rangers Power Play Concerns, Forechecking and more
It’s been an interesting few days, sorry, weeks in Rangerstown lately. Mika Zibanejad has gone down with a concussion. Ryan McDonagh and Brendan Smith are back in the lineup. David Desharnais’ use on the first line is being questioned. JT Miller is playing a huge role at center and the Power Play is becoming, for now, an issue. Having gone 1/18 over the span of seven games before “breaking out” for two power-play tallies Friday night against the Carolina Hurricanes, still making the PP a pedestrian 3/25 in their past eight games and all three power-play goals coming against Carolina. More on this later.
Oh yeah, the Rangers now face a schedule of Pittsburgh, Washington, and New Jersey in three of the next five days. Games that will pretty much determine, yes determine, if they’re going to be a bubble team or a contender in the Metropolitan Division.
As it currently stands the Rangers sit three points back of Pittsburgh in the Wild Card, four points back of the Islanders and Devils for second and third in the Metro and five points back of Columbus for first place. We are now officially in “must-win” territory here. Shawn Taggart gets in depth about the importance of the upcoming schedule here on foreverblueshirts.com
Let’s Have A Chat
Something that I found to be interesting, yet have discussed before, is that at the Rangers most recent practice, Steve Kampfer began rotating in. Usually, he would rotate in with the third pairing as the seventh defenseman. However, he was rotating in with Nick Holden as the counterpart to Ryan McDonagh on the top pair. It will be interesting to keep an eye on this as it develops.
Before I continue, let me predict that I will be labeled a “Holden Defender” and a “flat-earther” for the following, but it has nothing to do with Holden yet everything to do with the game. I am a defender of the hockey player, for those of you well versed in history, I am a defender of The Man In The Arena. (Those of you not, check it out, primo stuff.)
Nick Holden has gotten a lot of undue blame due to flat out “Lazy Analysis.” He was quickly blamed for the game-winning goal versus Florida. Upon further examination, it was blatantly obvious that there were multiple mistakes on that play that, counter to popular opinion, put Holden into a forced situation.
I went into detail here previously on “Lazy Analysis” and why watching the game on the spreadsheet versus on the ice creates a bias, something its original purpose was meant to avoid ironically.
It’s Not An Isolated Issue
Comparatively, in Edmonton, a recent blunder by defenseman Kris Russell (A favorite punching bag of the analytics crowd in Edmonton) led to Oilers Head Coach Todd McLellan saying the following;
“Kris Russell is a character individual and that’s why our team cares so much about him,” McLellan said. “Whoever’s criticising this individual probably has never played a competitive sport in their life and if they have and they’ve been perfect and that event never occurred to them, then they should be in the hall of fame somewhere. Mistakes happen.
“There was no intent for him to shoot it in our net. That’s the one video clip we don’t even review. What are we going to look at? What he means to our team and I know all the analytics nerds out there find ways to run him into the ground, he means a lot to our team. Every single one of those players, regardless of the goal the other night he put into his own net, will tell you that any day in any place. I’m pretty sure a lot of guys in that locker room down the hallway would tell you the same thing. So analytics that, if you want.“
Dilly, Dilly to you Coach McLellan for standing up for your player like that. The debate over whether or not analytics serve a purpose has been had, and they do. However, the use of most of the analytics crowd has struck a nerve with those guys that know the game the best, NHL players and coaches, the men in the arena.
Even Toronto Maple Leafs Alternate Captain Leo Komarov recently pushed back at analytics when approached by a reporter who’s analytics said the player was slumping. When Komarov asked the reporter “What numbers? Corsi?” the reporter replied “yeah” to which Komarov smirked and said, “Oh, you’re still doing that sh*t?”
Trend is an Analytic, eh.
The trend is truly beginning to turn. There’s been an overwhelming misuse of advanced analytics. Evidenced by professionals now laughing at its amateurish applications and pushing back against it as it creates and feeds these narratives and biases. Something that we have happening right here at home with the Rangers, where a New York Rangers reporter messaged me after the Rangers loss to Florida and said “What was Holdens CF the past five and 10 games? So sick of every damn loss, someone is the culprit and he is main one blamed. It was a bad turnover, it happens, no one ever had a completely mistake-free game.”
This isn’t a matter of whether or not advanced analytics serve a purpose, they absolutely do. The fact is, the purpose they have been serving many times are in furthering an agenda of those utilizing them. Analytics is a complimentary piece of evaluation, not the conclusion.
Nick Holden is a good defenseman. He was tied for seventh in the NHL in Goals Scored amongst defensemen last season with eleven and was third on the team amongst defensemen in points. Steve Kampfer is also a good defenseman which is exactly why they are rotating in as top line pairing mates with Ryan McDonagh as both of them earned their looks when having to fill in during McDonagh and Smith’s absences playing some big minutes.
I don’t think it’s anything immediate, but from what I’ve seen Kampfer has provided Head Coach Alain Vigneault (1,160 games coached experience on top of two seasons as a professional player) and Assistant Coach Lindy Ruff (1,493 NHL games coached on top of 13 years/691 games played as a player) who have over 3,000 games worth of NHL experience, enough to warrant them to try to find a way to get him on to the ice. Here’s some compelling analytics on why we should trust these two’s judgment in player assessment.
We May Have A Problem
The Power Play is going to remain an issue for a little while here, due in part to the absence of Mika Zibanejad, but also in how teams defend the Rangers power play. Columbus Blue Jackets Head Coach John Tortorella essentially put on a clinic when it came down to how to defend the Rangers man advantage and other teams followed suit. The current way teams are defending it is by clogging up the lanes, forcing the Rangers attackers to use their creativity in moving the puck around the zone. Zibanejad is highly skilled at that and his absence takes away from the multi-dimensioned attack the Rangers employ.
In addition to what I’ve seen recently from Hayes at center, I am also becoming a very big fan of the line combination of Mats Zuccarello, JT Miller, and Michael Grabner. In theory, the line contains everything from speed on the wing, playmaking, and the ability to score. Where Hayes’ game has been very strong in all three zones, I see many similarities with this lines play lately. Taking away Michael Grabner’s hat trick, I would still venture to say this line has the ability to step up and carry this team offensively in Mika Zibanejad’s absence.
Of Major Importance
Forechecking will be important in the next couple of games. Both Pittsburgh and Washington will be played on the road so Vigneault doesn’t have the luxury of matching lines up against the Penguins and Capitals top line’s speed and threat, so he’ll have to rely on rolling all four lines and doing something I’ve seen him do which is employ multiple forechecking schemes at once. It’s almost Rex Ryan-ish in it’s purpose because the opposition really never gets comfortable when it’s working, and they won’t be able to anticipate what’s coming. Philadelphia recently employed a really interesting center ice type of forecheck against the Islanders that wasn’t your typical 1-3-1 in that it was more of a 3-2 backed up and pressed the puck carrier at center ice. They forced a lot of turnovers that way and frustrated the Islanders offense as they really had no neutral zone space. Vigneault has been very smart in these situations this year as I’ve noticed the team employ multiple forechecks. That’s going to be very important and key in neutralizing Crosby & Co.
The bad news out of all of this, I believe, is we’re going to continue to see a decreased usage of Rangers sniper Pavel Buchnevich in these two games. He’s undoubtedly one of the team’s best scoring threats and you want to get him as much time as possible near the other team’s net. Unfortunately, he hasn’t shown improvement in his awareness away from the puck and I believe Vigneault will continue to shelter him especially against the Crosbys, Malkins and Ovechkins of the world. That’s not to say he’s not going to get his chances, and it doesn’t mean that Vigneault doesn’t want to have him out there as much as possible, but he’s just going to have to continue to pick his spots with care when it comes to Buchy.